Although Cairokee were founded in 2003, eight whole years before the revolution, whatever successes they may have experienced as an underground band can hardly be compared to their post-25 January triumphs. Their hit single, Sowt El Horriya (The Voice of Freedom) – written during the first 18 days of the revolution and released before former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down – took the country by storm to be seen and heard for months on radio stations, all over TV channels, and even as a cell phone ringtone. The band even made it to international media outlets, with appearances on CNN and in publications like Vanity Fair.
Today, three years later, Cairokee are revelling in the success of their latest album, Sekka Shemal (An Indecent Path).
Their third after Matloub Za’eem (Leader Needed, 2011) and Wana Maa Nafsy A'ed (As I Sit by Myself, 2012), the album was originally scheduled for release in August 2013. However, the date had to be postponed when the censorship board rejected the title of one of the songs – which also happens to be a recurring line in the track: Nefsy Afaggar El-Shaware’ (I Wish I Could Blow up the Streets). The line was rejected by censors on grounds of ‘promoting terrorism’.
“The song actually has nothing to do with the current political turbulence in the country,” says Amir Eid, the band's vocalist and songwriter, “It’s about the unbearable traffic and the constant chaos on the streets.”
The song was eventually passed by censors after the issue was brought to the president of the board's attention who found the lyrics, in their context, not to constitute a threat to security.
In the first three days after its release, the first copy of Sekka Shemal was entirely sold out. By the end of the week, it had become the album with the highest number of downloads and purchases on iTunes.
“The album is very diverse and sounds completely different from anything we’ve produced before,” says Eid, “It moves from rage to despair to optimism and indifference; every single emotion we have experienced as a generation this past year went into the music.”
Sekka Shemal, the album’s title song, is about how people find themselves forced to tread an ‘indecent path’ in order to make their way in the country, and how doing what’s right is almost invariably a fruitless endeavour.
Yet positivity still finds its way to some of the album’s songs. One of the highlights is Agmal Ma ‘Andi (The Most Beautiful Thing I Have), a hopeful, heartfelt number recorded with popular Algerian artist Souad Massi, with lyrics by acclaimed writer Omar Taher.
“Electricity was out one day, and Sherif [the band’s keyboardist] and I were bored at home. He was randomly playing the accordion when I caught a composition that I loved. He repeated it until we got something solid that we built upon, and this is how Agmal Ma ‘Andi was born,” Eid recounts, “We approached Soad Massi later because we thought the quality of her voice, that unique mixture between the Middle East and Europe, fit perfectly with the song’s melody and the notes of the accordion.”
The music video for Agmal Ma ‘Andi is the band’s first to be featured on their VEVO channel on YouTube (they are the first band from the Middle East to be featured on the international video hosting service), and is one of only three tracks on the album not written by Eid. The other two are El Khatt Dah Khatty (This Handwriting Is Mine) and Tele’ El Sabah (Morning Has Arrived), which were both written by the late prominent colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.
El Khatt Dah Khatty is a defiant ballad Negm had originally written about Palestine. ‘The coast of olives is mine, and the land is Arab; its breeze is my breath, its soil is my people,’ the lyrics declare.
“We visited [Negm], only weeks before his death, because we wanted him to listen to the songs, and he loved them,” Eid says, “When he listened to El Khatt Dah Khatty, he said it was as if he were hearing it for the first time. He told us he had been feeling that his words had become old and worn out, and that our music had revived them once again. I was truly humbled.”
Tele’ El Sabah, meanwhile, was an attempt to reinvent what Eid refers to as ‘Egyptian morning music’. Bursting with energy, the song is a cheerful ode to the country’s labouring workers who start their day with the crack of dawn. “I wanted to make a happy morning song, something similar to what the great Sayed Darwish created, but in the band we don’t really have the means to do something so traditionally oriental,” Eid explains, “so we had to experiment, and the result I think was refreshing, quite different from previous songs of the same type.”
The album, however, witnesses Cairokee exploring their oriental side more extensively than ever before. Not only is the new addition of accordion used to create essentially Egyptian character in certain tracks, the band also introduced the qanun in others. On the other hand, the band temporarily abandoned the rock genre they had become associated with, for a duet with Abdel-Basset Hammouda, a hardcore shaabi (urban street music) number in a song titled Ghareeb fi Belad Ghareeba (A Stranger in a Strange Country). It is actually one of Cairokee’s earliest songs and was featured on their first album but with completely different arrangements.
“I originally wrote this song about the people I used to see every day on the metro; ordinary Egyptians from all walks of life. It hit me while we were making this album, though, that I wanted to be singing to them instead of just about them,” Eid says, “at first, Ghareeb could have been classified as psychedelic rock. Turning it into a shaabi song suitable for Hammouda’s voice was a challenge, but I think it turned out wonderfully in the end.”
Sekka Shemal also tackles issues of identity and cultural confusion in songs like E’adet Nazar (Reconsideration), the dysfunctional educational system in Ana Mesh Aader (I Can’t), and unjust imprisonments in Yama fel Habs Mazaleem (Countless Innocents Behind Bars). Romance has a share as well, particularly in Lamma Et’abelna (When We Met), another early song rearranged. The final track, Fel Nehaya (In the End), is an instrumental piece composed by Sherif El-Hawary, the band’s guitarist.
Regarding the band’s future plans, Eid says Cairokee will be giving several concerts around the country to promote the album, and will focus on expanding their studio, where they record all their work.
“One of the things we’re very grateful for is that we get to work on the music ourselves from A to Z; that we have our own studio where we record it as well as our own production company,” he says, “this guarantees our sound will always be ours, with no influence from external forces.”
Eid says that with Cairokee Productions, their company, they are seeking to fill a gap that has existed in the Egyptian music industry for decades. “We have a production company through which we can bring music we believe in to the light; and that is priceless,” Eid continues, “We plan to start producing the work of other musicians, too, not just ours.”
A week before Sekka Shemal was out, Cairokee had released a single titled Nas Betor’os w Nas Betmout (Some Dance, Some Die), inspired by events taking place in the country on the third anniversary of the revolution. “There were those people celebrating in Tahrir while others were being brutally killed in clashes all over the country,” Eid says, “it was disgraceful, and we felt we had to express our standpoint. It was very important for us to let people know that we were not afraid of speaking out, that we have not and will not change.”